Written for the London Story Slam
The guy to my right takes a sip of his coffee, the thud of its stained base being placed on the table just masking the name of the person on the other end of the phone.
‘Yeah, I’m living in London unfortunately.’
Mid gulp, the hot syrupy liquid in my mouth swells, as difficult to swallow as the overheard comment. Over the rum of my mug I scan the room. No one else flinches. There is not a flutter. Heads buried in laptops, bottoms planted in seats, they don’t seem to have registered that last word. ‘I’m living in London…unfortunately.’
I push back my chair from the table, the chair legs scraping the tiled floor in the same way that his comment grazed my ears. A middle aged women in the corner twitches her disapproving head towards me, with a glare that surely made her soya milk curdle. Moving with ferocity is not on the menu here.
‘Unfortunately?’ I splutter. ‘Oh yes, one is so unfortunate.’
The poor guys looks up at me with a degree of bewilderment in his eyes.
‘You don’t deserve to be here’
‘8 million people call it home. All afflicted souls are they? I’d hazard a guess that the 26m who visit every year don’t share your views.’
He looks away from this madwoman, sips his drink.
‘London is still paved with gold in the dreams and hearts of many, the place for destiny to become reality. As a child I used o press my nose against the dirty window pane of the South Eastern service, my heart leaping with knots of excitement, the mantra of ‘I’m going to live here, I’m going to live here’ nestling in perfect unison with the soundless spaces left by the clackety clack of the wheels of the track. I wouldn’t say I am unfortunate to be here.
‘Where else, in one saunter, can you be Elizabeth Bennett, Oliver Twist and Septimus Smith, all by simply crossing the street or turning a corner?’
By now a few other members of the clientele have been jolted into, not motion as such, but a certain level of curiosity as to what the hell this frantic female is yelling about.
A paused for breath enabled me to to just catch the old man in the purple leather chair grunt a derisory ‘Hormones’ into his grey beard, then settle back into The Times.
‘Have you never stood on Parliament Hill and seen London stretched out before you, icon after icon, all in one neat row, a scenic snapshot of beauty over a myriad of activity.
He gathers his papers, eyes firmly fixed to the floor.
‘Or gazed on the moonlight on flickering on the Thames, a thousand million different mirrors, glistening at variegated angles, ricocheting lights of the city, sometimes right into your eye, so bright that your brain is dazzles and you tumble in love again.
‘Do you want to go for dinner? ‘ I venture enthusiastically, as though the last few minutes have been a witty interchange of banter between the two of us, rather than a tirade of abuse at his choice of vocabulary.
A vehement ‘No’ turned my offer down.
‘Yeah, let’s go out – I’ll prove to how lucky you are to be here. Lebanes on Edgware Road, or some Greek up in Green Lanes. Or maybe you’d prefer a snack – we can get a bagel from Daniels in Golder’s Green.
‘Think about it, what can possibly be lamentable where you can be anyone you like, changing identity through a desire for exploration or escape, faster than any superhero can by putting his pants on the outside. London is the ultimate date – looks and a personality.
He goes to take another sip, and stalls. The cup runneth empty. I now have his full, if not voluntarily devoted, attention.
‘I mean, yeah sometimes the tubes are delayed, light pollution is a problem, and it rains, but where else do you pass through places on your way to work that as a child you thought only existed in board games?
Needing support, I rack my brain for opinions of those more authoritative than myself. Plato said that what makes a city is the people. Do you think that everyone here is doomed, hapless souls wandering their cursed streets? Or John Berger, he reckons that London is perpetually a teenager. A heady cocktail of hope, desire and potential – sometimes tough to be sure, but exhilarating, and with all of life ahead, certainly not unfortunate. Or Blake, he believed there to be no finer sights that the view from Westminster Bridge, and he didn’t dish out praise lightly. I stop short of asking ‘when the sun is in the sky, why oh why, would you wanna be anywhere else?’
Except of course, I don’t say any of this. I push my chair out, pick up my bag, and walk out of the American coffee chain, into the soulless shopping centre, and vow that rather than think about how much I like London, I need to live like I love it.